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Montclair schools sue union to force teachers to return to the classroom

Montclair schools sue union to force teachers to return to the classroom

 The Montclair school district is suing the Montclair teachers union to force them to return to their classrooms. 

In a statement Tuesday, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said he was taking the action with a "heavy heart. 

"I see no other option but to instruct our legal counsel to file a lawsuit against the MEA for a physical return to school."

School and union officials have been locked in a bitter standoff since Jan. 19, when elementary school teachers failed to attend an in-person training day to prepare for a return to hybrid, in-person learning on Jan. 25. After the district was forced to cancel the reopening, frustrated parents protested in front of Edgemont Elementary School, bearing signs that read, "Stop harming kids" and "Get our kids back in school."

Montclair students and parents protested the cancellation of a return to in-person instruction on Jan. 25 in front of Edgemont Elementary School after members of the teachers union cited pandemic safety concerns.  Jan. 25, 2021.

A sign draped over the entrance read, "318 days since our children have been in school." The district has been all-virtual since the beginning of the pandemic last March.

Mediation began Jan. 23. The union has called for a delay in returning to physical classrooms until teachers can be vaccinated, citing safety issues that include problems with the schools' ventilation systems, non-working sinks and what they say is the board's failure to provide documentation of repairs. 

Union officials, quoting president Petal Robertson, responded to Ponds' email with a fiery statement Tuesday afternoon, saying that the district "repeatedly lies and obfuscates the truth."

Robertson is running for a leadership position in the state teachers' union, the New Jersey Education Association.

Montclair teachers union president Petal Robertson speaks to her constituents at a rally in 2019 to protest paycheck problems. The Montclair Education Association is currently embroiled in a standoff with school superintendent Dr. Jonathon Ponds over the district's decision to sue the union to force teachers to return to the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic. February 2021.

The union also stated that, with his public statement, Ponds violated the confidentiality agreed to by the parties. "We have been sucker-punched by a district that cries wolf, when there are mounds of proof of the district’s negligence in preparing buildings for students, continued lies about second walkthroughs, and a purported desire to work with the MEA."

A hybrid learning plan in place since August has been postponed several times due to concerns over aging ventilation systems. In October, an engineer's report estimated that $26 million would be needed to modernize them.  

In his statement, Ponds said that he had proposed using only the 181 classrooms with working ventilation systems; teaching all kindergarten and special ed students at the Charles Bullock School, constructed in 2010; limiting in-person instruction to four hours, and providing staff with personal protective equipment.

The union statement said Ponds' plan fails to address "busing schedules, cleaning and sanitizing needs, classroom rosters and which staff are staying remote for health reasons.

"His promise that schools are ready is a hollow one, smoke and mirrors meant to distract our community from the false narrative he is trying to paint with himself as the 'fixer' and 'part of the community' and that the MEA is 'unreasonable.' "

Dr. Jonathan C. Ponds

Parent groups have organized on both sides, with those advocating a return to the classroom staging protests and circulating a petition calling on the board to enforce the return to school. Some have advocated for outdoor learning. At a January Board of Education meeting that lasted late into the night, other parents echoed teachers' concerns about returning to school in the midst of a pandemic.

A survey taken in the fall showed that 70% of parents planned to send their children to school once the option is available.

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Ponds, who is in his first year as superintendent, acknowledged the "rift" in the relationship between the community and teachers. "Our staff is discouraged and defeated. Our parents are frustrated. If we maintain the status quo, no one prevails."  

The union denied the rift, saying Ponds is "out of touch with the community" and only concerned with a "small and vocal population of parents," rather than those who "stand with us in demanding safe schools.

"We absolutely care about our students. …we want to ensure the best learning environment for both students and staff.We absolutely have been working every day since September 1."

For his part, Ponds said that his job is to educate the town's children.

"We have children who are suffering. Our children need the support and education provided by their teachers; they need the structure of in-person learning and the socialization that comes with being in a classroom with their peers, even if socially distanced.

 "When forced to make a decision between competing interests, I will always do what is best for our students."

Julia Martin covers Montclair for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: jmartin@gannettnj.com

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